All Bets Are Off
October 25 05
So, have you heard about the latest "Christian" entertainment? Go to your local Christian bookstore and see if they have poker chips. Yes, that's right. Some Christian stores are now carrying "Christian" poker chips.
If you've been living in a cave, perhaps you don't know how huge poker is in the United States. If you have cable or satellite TV, you know that there are channels that show professional poker tournaments. Even regular broadcast TV sometimes has poker. A few years ago, a book came out called, "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions," by Ben Mezrich. Bookstores couldn't keep it on the shelves. Indeed, it is one of America's best sellers and DreamWorks has bought the film rights. Mezrich has a new gambling book out now.
The idea is that you have a chance to get rich by playing cards. You just have to learn the rules, get good at counting cards, and have a little "luck" on your side. I know several people who are avid gamblers, not necessarily going to casinos (although I know plenty of them, too), but ante-ing up for poker games at home. What starts out as low-stakes fun often turns into high-stakes gaming. Some of the people I know who play poker and participate in other gaming call themselves Christians. They go to church and they own Christian businesses.
Everywhere I look, I see more poker. We have a local chain store here called G.I. Joe's, "the sports and auto store." They never used to carry poker paraphernalia, but now I walk in there and I see a whole section devoted to poker. You can buy a deluxe table and a deluxe chip set. And then I walk into Wal-Mart and, prominently displayed, I see everything I need to host Texas Hold 'em in my home. Times, they are a-changin'.
So, what's wrong with poker? And what's wrong with "Christian" poker? I remember when I was a kid, my parents used to play poker with two other couples. They all lived relatively far away, so they only got together one Saturday evening a month, but it was enough to make a big impression on me. When it was my parents' turn to host the group, my brother and I liked to hang around and see how it was played, much to the frustration of our parents. It wasn't long after that that my brother and I began playing Five-Card Stud for matchsticks. Later, we wagered pennies. We weren't allowed to wager anything of more value, so we quickly lost interest. And therein lies the problem with poker.
If poker did not involve money, would anyone still be playing it? Before I came to know the Lord, a couple of friends and I spent a three-day weekend in Reno. We had a great time playing Keno and the slots, a little roulette to spice things up. I brought only twenty dollars with me, which was quickly gone. My two companions had more money and so were able to enjoy their time much longer than I. I liked the atmosphere of the casino, but when the money was gone, I wanted to go home. There's no reason to be in a casino if you don't have any money. It's quite a sad scene, really.
It is the appeal of money, and the prospect of easy money, that keeps gambling going. My parents played for nickels and dimes, but if no money were involved, they wouldn't have played at all. The Bible says that it is the love of money that is at the root of all kinds of evil. People steal to get money to ante up at the poker table. People kill people for cheating at poker. Gambling addicts sometimes turn to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain of losing the money that would have paid the family bills or put food on the family table. Lack of money causes some men to kill their wives and children out of shame.
For some, buying a lottery ticket on occasion is as far as it goes and I don't suppose that that's a sin. For some, playing poker for pennies is considered a nice evening of adult entertainment and I can't say that that's a problem. However, when that occasional evening turns into frequent poker parties, or when those pennies turn into higher denominations, clearly we have crossed the line.
So why would a Christian bookstore carry "Christian" poker chips? To cash in on the ways of the world. You see, if you're just playing for pennies, you don't need chips. You only need chips when you're dealing with much higher denominations. Instead of having piles of bills on the table, each player enters the game by buying chips. The chips are then used to stand in for the money. At the end of the game, each player cashes in his chips. Some players will lose all their chips and will not get any of their money back. Other players may win a bit more money than they started with. There is usually one big winner who ends up with a pile of chips. In Christianity, we are supposed to be members of one Body, all equal in the eyes of the Lord. We are to assist those who have less than us. So, what if Christians play poker and then, at the end of the night, return all the money to its original owners? Then, my question is, why play for money at all? And, if you're not playing for money, or something else of value, why play poker?
The reason that Christians need poker chips is to play poker for money. Why would Christians wager money? It could be that they feel they need more money and this is a way to win quick cash. If that is the case, these Christians do not understand their relationship with Christ, for He gives us everything we need. If we are in financial trouble, it is only because we have been poor stewards of what He has given us. Gambling indicates a lack of faith. Another reason that Christians may gamble is to feel accepted by the world. If that is the case, these Christians do not know the love of God.
In any case, gambling involves covetousness, which God hates. We gamble because we want more money or because we want what the world has. In Romans 13:9, the apostle Paul warns us to not covet. In addition, we need to be more responsible with the money that God gives us. A Christian might reason that she only lost thirty dollars, a fraction of her income. But I would say that for thirty dollars a month, you can do a lot to help out a local ministry or put that money toward helping the poor.
So, what will you do the next time you're in your local Christian bookstore? You may want to check out what they're selling. If you see any poker paraphernalia, you may want to ask to see the manager. Ask him if those poker chips are meant to stand in for matchsticks, or pennies, or perhaps tens and twenties.
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As a postscript to this article, I just found out that Mississippi has changed its laws governing casinos. Before Hurricane Katrina, the law prohibited onshore casinos. The Mississippi casinos were floating casinos just offshore. Katrina destroyed them. Post-Katrina, the state government is now allowing the rebuilding of casinos, permitting them to be built as permanent structures on land.